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With You By My Side

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It was a bridge - or, it had been. It loomed before him, tall columns of stone separated by gaping spaces, as if some great beast had snapped away whole lengths of it in its jaws. The traveller stood, his tiny scarf flapping in the breeze, and gazed out across the bridge and the desert beneath it, feeling small and alone in his vantage point. He was still reeling from his encounter, moments before, on the other side of the gate. The Ancestors. What were they showing him? What was his task here, his role? Now, as he faced the expanse of desert, he felt hollow inside. This place was so huge, and he felt so small and alone.

I must try. With a small chirp, he lept from the parapet and tried, with all his strength, to reach the next section of the bridge. Futile. He was falling, falling, until he fluttered down onto the sand and landed in a pile of cloak and scarf. Standing up, he chirped, frustrated. In the name of the Ancestors, how was he supposed to get up there?

Climbing? But the stone columns were too smooth and too tall. Climbing was impossible. It seemed his journey was to be over before it had even really begun - and he had no idea why, even, he was here! All he knew was that to continue, he would have to reach the other side. But there did not seem to be a way.

He sat down on a nearby rock, standing out from the sand. Perhaps if he waited here long enough, the Ancestors might give him some guidance. The wind drifted sand into his face, spilling it down the inside of his cloak. He shut his eyes instinctively, and began to daydream of waterfalls, tall towers filled with friends and acquaintances, and cloaks of every shade of the rainbow flapping against marketplace stalls and teashop doorways.

A sudden noise brought him back to his new reality. He opened his eyes abruptly, and stood up. Again! A long low chirp, in the distance. He spun around, seeking out a figure, a cloak. There! In the distance, he spied it. A cloak, this one white, not red like his own, and barely visible against the sands. He called out a hopeful reply. Friend! I see you!

A whoosh of colour and light made him stumble back. The rock he was standing on was opening up, and a large strip of cloth emerging from it! Behind him, he heard a rumbling, and, forgetting the distant figure, he turned, and watched in awe as a huge, glowing, red scarf tumbled from the first section of the bridge to the ground below. It did not just appear - it sang to him, as if it was pleased to have been called out from its slumber! He ran towards it, joyful - but he found he was no longer alone. Next to him now, a white-cloaked traveller. But this was no plain cloak - this one was emblazoned with golden thread, with a scarf longer than twenty of himself (or so it seemed). And the cloak’s owner chirped and sang, as if finally reunited with a long lost brother. The red-cloaked traveller chirped in reply. I am glad to see you!

The white-cloaked traveller danced in front of him, back and forth, chirping quick and high. Then, jumping into the air, he flew on the breeze, away from the bridge and the beckoning red pathway, towards the desert. The red-cloaked traveller chirped, confused. Wait! We have just found one another! From a distance away, the other traveller stopped, and chirped again, twice, then flew a little further.

The red-cloaked traveller tilted his head to one side. I should follow? He let out a cautious chirp, and ran a little way through the sand, after his white-cloaked companion. Wait! Wait! My scarf is short, I cannot fly!

Together, they crossed the desert, the red-cloaked traveller following as the other flipped and twirled through the wind, ahead of him, chirping all the way. They were reaching the cliffs, beneath the far side of the bridge, when it seemed like his white-cloaked friend disappeared entirely.

Where are you? The chirp was quizzical, but then he heard an answering call. Behind the falling sand? The responding chirp came again, a high, positive sound. He shook his red scarf and jumped towards the cliffs, startled to find himself suddenly behind a wall of moving sand particles, facing his missing companion.

His friend chirped, softly, and moved to one side, and the red-cloaked traveller beheld a wondrous sight: a glowing object, just like the one he had found at the beginning of his journey, the one which had given him his scarf! He stepped towards the glow, and felt a pleased shiver run through him as he became surrounded by hundreds of tendrils of living light, winding around him and through him. The white-cloaked traveller sang to him, and he sang back. Thank you! Thank you!

His companion chirped once more, and ran back through the sand.

-----

Now came a new kind of journey for the red-cloaked traveller, so different from the loneliness he had felt to begin with. His white-cloaked friend showed him more glowing glyphs like the first one, and their scarves grew longer and longer as they journeyed on, together. From time to time, his friend, who seemed more contemplative and less hasty than himself, would sit down and meditate. The red-cloaked traveller would sit next to him, but he couldn’t help but chirp, too, now and then, in wonder and joy at the beauty around him.

The circling monsters with their ominous searchlights put fear in his heart, but with his friend by his side, he felt the courage and strength to battle onwards to the next waypoint. When they battled through the snow and freezing blizzard together, their scarves twisted around each other, so that their glow could continue and the travellers' hearts were warmed. When the Ancestors came to them, and showed them the story of the world they were passing through, the red-cloaked traveller felt more and more that he understood their purpose here: that the journey they were on was their purpose, and to complete it together was an awesome and joyous thing.

-----

It wasn’t until they reached the snowy drifts on the mountainside that he felt himself waver from their path. The wind pushed them apart, and he cried out as he felt his scarf freeze and shorten, and his connection to his friend grow weaker with each section lost. He could no longer hear any reassurance from his companion, whose white cloak made him ever harder to see through the driving snow. The cold seemed to penetrate right through him - each step became harder and harder, a battle of mind over body, and soon he could no longer hear even his own chirps, never mind those of the other traveller.

Was he even still there, struggling along beside him? The red-cloaked traveller no longer knew. Fear crept into his heart as flakes of snow drifted inside the neck of his cloak, clouding his vision and freezing his thin body all the more. He thought he caught a glimpse of gold thread, in the edges of his vision, and struggled to move, to rejoin his friend, to not be alone in this terrible cold place. But it was no use.

He sank to his knees in the snow. An emptiness swelled inside him, eating up all the warmth and companionship still left within his heart. Failed. It felt as if the word would overwhelm him. We have failed. That he had not just failed his own journey, but also his guide, his companion, his friend... Sorrow welled up in his throat, and a bitter taste filled his mouth. Tears tried to form in his eyes, but froze before they could even reach his cheeks.

So he sat, forgetting the wind and the cold and the snow, until all around him was nothing but white, and the journey was ended.

-----

A warmth filling him. The touch of the corner of a scarf, flicking at his cheek and back. A cloak, white and gold, flapping against his. A body, pressed against him. He looked up, and saw the Ancestors, looking down at him. It is over? He could not help but chirp, not daring to believe the hope in his heart.

A chirp... Not the call of an Ancestor, not far away, not imagined, but beside him, solid, long and glowing, filling his scarf to the very end--My scarf!--and familiar. He turned his head, slowly, to find his white cloaked companion, and let out a chirp of joy. Reunited!

Now he could not help but hope. Had the cold and loss and sorrow been just another test? Had he not failed, after all? Could they still reach the glow of the mountains, sent on their way by the Ancestors, just like every other encounter?

It was as if his white-cloaked friend could read his thoughts, as he let out a long and joyful chirp. Above them, the Ancestors nodded slowly... And suddenly they were flying, like nothing the red cloaked traveller had ever experienced before. Twisting around him, their scarves intertwining, as if they belonged together and nothing could part him, flew his companion. Flashes of memory, of all they had survived together, flickered before his eyes, and he felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude that he had not had to face those terrors and wonders alone.

-----

They flew through Paradise together, joyously swooping through air and water and sparkling magic, closer, ever closer, to their goal. It was as if they were one, now, their calls and contact bringing them ever higher and faster, until finally, ecstatically, they reached the highest peak of the mountain. They fell, panting, into the snow.

After a while, the white-cloaked traveller stood up, chirping. The red-cloaked journeyer tilted his head, confused, as he watched his friend run in the snow. What are you doing? But as he chirped, he saw what was forming, beneath his companion's feet: a heart in the snow, made up of footprints and the swish of the white cloak. The red-cloaked traveller chirped, softly, and nodded. He ran to the heart, and, carefully making sure he did not brush it away, ran in his own heart shape, interlocking with his friends.

They stood, side by side, and looked at the hearts. The red-cloaked traveller turned, and looked into his friend's glowing eyes. His heart was overflowing with joy. He chirped, and the other chirped in return.

Together, they turned and walked into the light.